Posts Tagged ‘Superchunk’

THE THERMALS interview

June 4, 2013

“This record’s about killing,” announces Hutch Harris emphatically.

A bold statement, perhaps, but The Thermals frontman isn’t entirely averse to heavy themes. In 2006, the Portland popsters’ third album ‘The Body, The Blood, The Machine’ – widely regarded as their magnum opus – depicted two young lovers attempting to flee a fascistic parody of America’s fundamentalist Christian right. They followed it up two years later with ‘Now We Can See’, a record told entirely from the perspective of the dead. Yeesh! And yet Hutch tuts at the very notion that thrilling latest effort ‘Desperate Ground’ might be anything so vulgar as a concept album.

“We try not to say ‘concept’. It makes me think of Yes or Styx – all that bloated 70s stuff. I don’t want people to think, ‘I really gotta know what the story is’,” he explains. “It’s too much of a burden on the record.”

There’s no plot to follow?

“No, no. We keep it intentionally vague, so it’s not about something specific. It’s just about humans and violence in general. Really we wanted the record to be like a film, y’know? Like Die Hard – an action movie.”

See, that’s where the new Thermals album differs from their most famous work. The Superchunk-y noise-pop of yore remains gratefully intact, but this time the lyrical thrills are far more visceral.

“We wanted to write something timeless. Something about how humans are always killing each other, and probably always will,” he continues. “I love 80s punk but there’s a lot about Reagan or Thatcher – go back to those songs now and it’s hard to relate, especially if you’re really young and you never knew those people. We wanted to write something that still could be relevant 20 years from now.”

Some have suggested that this makes for a somewhat simplistic political statement, an argument which leaves Hutch exasperated.

“There aren’t supposed to be any politics on this record at all. It’s irresponsible! There’s no morals!”

And this from the band responsible for one of post-millennial indie rock’s most explosive pieces of polemic in ‘The Body, The Blood, The Machine’.

“Man, I’ve been trying to get away from that for so long. After that record people started thinking, ‘Oh, The Thermals are a political band’. I don’t want that to be our thing. It’s fucking boring, you know?”

You don’t agree that songwriters are obligated to uphold any moral code to the listener?

“It should be exactly in between – not moral, not amoral. To me, one of the worst clichés in music is the anti-war song. It’s been done. We should be able to sing about war without having to say ‘war is wrong’, because we know that already.”

By this stage, dear reader, you might be forgiven for wondering whether there’s any room for optimism amidst the unforgiving frontiers of ‘Desperate Ground’. Fortunately, a chink of light appears at the death, in the form of ‘Our Love Survives’ – the album’s sole moment of romantic defiance.

“That was the last song we wrote for the record,” Hutch notes. “I think it works perfectly. I guess it’s optimistic because it’s about hope, and yet the record ends the way ‘The Body, The Blood…’ did – the world is pretty much destroyed, but love can survive. It might sound like a cliché, but it was a good note to end on.”

At the time of our chat, the band has just finished the video for forthcoming single ‘The Sunset’, with a rousing performance from bassist Kathy Foster as a Rocky-esque boxer. Hutch is audibly enthused:

“It’s a tribute to a bunch of different movies at once. I dunno if you remember [Spike Lee movie] Do The Right Thing – the end credits with Public Enemy, and Rosie Perez dancing with boxing gloves on… we decided to have Kathy doing that. And if you’re gonna do a video about boxing, you should probably have a lot of Rocky in there.”

Are you a fan of boxing in general?

“Y’know, I don’t love boxing, but… we decided Kathy should look like she knows what she’s doing, so we actually got her boxing lessons. It looks awesome. Kathy loved it, so I think I might actually take some!”

It’s a slight variation on the album theme…

“This one’s not as violent as the ‘Born To Kill’ video, which was a ton of blood and shit, where I get the shit kicked out of me. But this video is violent and the next one should be, too.”

For all this talk of violence, it’s easy to forget that The Thermals were distinctly less brash last time out. 2009’s ‘Personal Life’ LP was noticeably more morose than previous collections, relying considerably less on velocity and volume. It’s a path that Hutch was keen to get away from.

“That record [‘Personal Life’] was kind of like a breather,” he says. “It maybe ended up being softer and quieter than we’d intended, but it was different.

“Whenever you’re making something, you’re reacting to the thing you did previously. We didn’t want that to be the path that the band was on – like, we’re just gonna get slower and quieter… that would be terrible. So ‘Desperate Ground’ was a conscious decision to get loud and crazy again.”

Do you prefer listening to louder, faster music?

“I almost only listen to 80s punk! I listen to The Addicts a lot, and Agent Orange – ‘Living In Darkness’. I listen to that record more than anything, so that’s definitely a huge influence.”

The Thermals seem to have quite a lot in common with power-pop from that era.

Yeah, I feel like we sound so much like The Undertones. I never got so into hardcore because I need a really strong melody.”

It’s interesting that you prefer to align The Thermals with indie rock rather than punk…

“I just don’t want people to think of us and picture leather jackets and Mohawks. punk is such a weird word, it doesn’t describe us as people.”

Either way, this is certainly a louder, faster album.

“I feel revitalised by this record. Really excited by the band again. Some records I’m like, ‘well, I’m spent.’ I feel like this record is great and I could do it again.”

Looks like ‘Desperate Ground’ has plenty of cause for optimism after all.

(Originally published by The Fly, 03/05/2013)

TEENAGE ANGST HAS PAID OFF WELL: 20 Years Of ‘The New Nirvana’

June 4, 2013

The music industry is a strange beast. All too rarely does it seek out new sounds or ideas. It does not embrace change or futuristic concepts like ‘progress’. Basically, it tends to stick with a tried and tested formula:

1. Find band
2. Watch band get popular
3. Attempt to sign everyone else who sounds like the popular band
4. Desperately hope one of these bands gets popular enough to repeat the process
5. Swim in piles of money

Of course, stage one is often the stopping point, and the trouble with stage three is that all sorts of shite gets ground up in the wheels of capitalism (that sound you just heard was The Fly’s copy of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ falling out of our pockets). Stage five is the great, unattainable goal of an unsustainable business model, and it dangled most tantalisingly during the 90s. Alternative rock was booming, and record companies strove to find another act who might replicate the success of the one band everybody seemed to agree on. The decade became an endless, fruitless search for ‘the new Nirvana’; a buzz-phrase which seemed more and more ridiculous with every Candlebox that fell by the wayside. Here’s just a few of the acts who were chewed up (and occasionally spat out) out along the way…

STILTSKIN

Hopes were high for this Scottish collective, particularly when they scored a chart-topping single with their grunge-inflected debut ‘Inside’ in 1994. Heroically pioneering the ‘Levi’s advert = instant megastar’ method of climbing the ladder, they provided a template for future jeans-endorsing acts like Babylon Zoo when everyone heard the album and instantly shared the same revelation – specifically, that Stiltskin were a load of useless old cobblers. Huzzah! After an unsuccessful attempt to revive the band, vocalist Ray Wilson went on to front an ageing Genesis between 2006-8, a move which equated to surefire success in much the same way as Harry Redknapp’s stewardship of Queen’s Park Rangers equates to ‘a sensible, well-thought-out appointment, ensuring the footballing and financial success of the club for years to come’. Stiltskin brought out a new record in 2011. Nobody noticed.

BUSH

Difficult to work out exactly why Londoners Bush irked the British press so much. Perhaps it was the timing of debut album ‘Sixteen Stone’, just as the prevailing Seattle whine was beginning to be surpassed by Britpop’s parochial optimism. Maybe it was the commercialist feel of their glossy, written-for-American-radio grunge-lite. It could even have been their audacious habit of being popular across the Atlantic, in contrast to the failed attempts of more celebrated countrymen like Blur or Oasis. In all likelihood, however, it was because they were utter cack. Bush deflected the Nirvana-wannabe jibes by recording a ‘difficult’ follow-up record with Steve Albini, before going onto become one of the biggest rock bands on the planet: proof, if it was ever needed, that the vast majority of people are fucking idiots.

SILVERCHAIR

Mere whippersnappers when their debut ‘Frogstomp’ hit the stands in 1995, Silverchair’s ambitions grew beyond their early Pearl Jam apery. Their initial success ensured hero status in their native Australia, but by the time they reinvented themselves as alternative metallers with third album ‘Neon Ballroom’, the rest of the world was already losing interest. Frontman Daniel Johns later pushed the band in more broadly commercial directions, also incurring the wrath of ‘Neighbours’ fanboys everywhere by marrying actress-turned-popster Natalie Imbruglia. All of which is vastly more fascinating than the tedious guff they plopped out before going on hiatus in 2011. That’s right, Silverchair are a rectum in this analogy. Tee-hee.

RADISH

It was the unlikely figure of Nils Lofgren who first noticed Radish’s potential: with two independent albums under their belts by the tender age of fifteen, the band’s alarmingly precocious songwriter Ben Kweller sent a demo to the sometime E Street Band guitarist. One expensively-assembled demo later, a bidding war ensued to sign the self-described ‘sugar metal’ trio, with the adolescent rush of ‘Little Pink Stars’ burning briefly but brightly across UK radio in the spring of 1997. Essentially a goofier, grungier cousin of Ash’s effervescent ‘Girl From Mars’, the single flung the trio into the spotlight – major label debut ‘Restraining Bolt’ met with positive reviews, an opening slot at the Reading festival proved triumphant, and the band returned to the studio, excited by plans for an ambitious second album. Inevitably, the record was shelved; Radish were forced to seek a release from their contract, and that was the end of that. Kweller resurfaced at the turn of the millennium, pedalling Ben Folds-tinged country-pop under his own name.

IDLEWILD

A snarling bundle of sweat and chaos, Idlewild’s early appearances saw their sound famously described as “a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs”. Influenced as much by the angular pace of Superchunk as June Of 44’s dissonant post-rock, their art-school approach to Neanderthal punk energy made them heroes to skinny indie kids and muscular rock fans alike, before concerted efforts were made for the Edinburgh outfit to become (uh-oh!) ‘serious artists’. With journos hasty to rewrite their ‘new Nirvana’ spiels with the phrase ‘new REM’, it soon became apparent that the band were shooting for middle age too soon. Meanwhile, the band’s Roddy Woomble cultivated the worst haircut ever sighted on man or woman, before embarking on a fairly-well-received folk career. Which, one presumes, is lovely for him. Bit boring, mind.

LLAMA FARMERS

That’s right, Llama Farmers. Every now and again there’s a beat combo with a name of such jaw-dropping, face-palming, nation-uniting shitness that you want to stick them in stocks and allow infinite slaps to anyone who feels even slightly irritated by it. This Greenwich lot’s first two singles were decent enough to distract from their woeful choice in the moniker department, all hully-gully grunge riffs and shoegazey insouciance. Sadly, their transposition to a major label showed the gaping holes in their oevre – chiefly a lack of good songs or redeemably interesting features – and they passed unremarkably into the great indie dustbin in the sky. Nothing more was heard from them, but if you listen closely on a quiet night, you can still hear echoes from 1998; faint, ghostly whispers of angry voices seething at that bloody name.

PUDDLE OF MUDD

Fortune was never going to favour Wes Scantlin in the long run. Despite some independent success following Puddle Of Mudd’s formation in the initial grunge explosion, the phrase ‘discovered by Fred Durst’ doesn’t look good on anybody’s CV. Not even to Fred Durst. Trudging into a rock landscape razed to the ground by the ravages of nu-metal, the ‘workmanlike’ (read: bobbins) Muddsters suggested they might be due an extension to their excruciating 15 minutes of fame when worldwide smash ‘Blurry’ became another anthem for fans of knuckle-dragging yarlers like Nickelback and Creed. It was short-lived, however: before long a piss-drunk Scantlin sabotaged the band’s limited appeal with sloppy shows and embarrassing onstage rants. By summer 2003, nu-metal was a somewhat embarrassing stain on the 21st century’s trousers, and Puddle Of Mudd resumed their rightful place as a clump of dried jizz on the discarded, crumpled-up tissue of rock.

THE VINES

He looked like a star, and certainly tried to act like one. But things just didn’t pan out as Craig Nicholls had hoped – despite media proclamations that The Vines would save rock’n’roll with a handful of Mudhoney-esque stormers and a wealth of faux-psych ballads, the world just couldn’t stay interested. There was a crunching, cartoon-grunge charm to early singles like ‘Highly Evolved’ and ‘Get Free’, but ultimately audiences started to grow suspicious of garage bands called things like The Plural Nouns and started listening to post-punk imitators like Franz Ferdinand instead. Second album ‘Winning Days’ generated little but ripples of disappointment, while Nicholls’ increasingly-erratic behaviour (related to his as-yet-undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome) alienated the band even further from their fast-dwindling fanbase. The Vines continue to record to this day, either ignoring or oblivious to their current status as a half-remembered anachronism.

DINOSAUR PILE-UP

By and large, the idea of discovering a ‘new Nirvana’ ground to a halt in the noughties; the triumphalist New Rock Revolution and cerebral tendencies of the post-punk revival were at odds with what used to be known as ‘the Seattle sound’. Sure, there was the odd bunch who’d generate lazy references to the Aberdeen angst merchants – the swiftly-forgotten Nine Black Alps, for instance – but rock’s reference points had undeniably shifted. So it was something of a surprise when Leeds trio Dinosaur Pile-Up emerged in 2009, almost completely obscured by a cloud of Cobain comparisons. They were LOUD! They were PUNK! They were, without a shadow of a doubt, THE NEW NIRVANA. Except they weren’t really. As a swift spin of their forthcoming second LP ‘Nature Nurture’ will attest, jauntily-pleasant mosh-pop doth not make for era-defining, paradigm-realigning, awe-inspiring rock’n’roll. Verily, it maketh for sounding like Feeder. And that can’t be the point, surely?

(Originally published by The Fly, 21/03/2013)

New year, new start

January 5, 2011

“I’ll never know which way to flow, set a course that I don’t know” – Teenage Fanclub

A new start always seems like an empty promise. All those hopeful plans and ideas to change seem to fade so rapidly when faced with the humdrum day-to-dayisms that so easily get in the way. In a way it reminds me of that line in Come Out 2nite by Kenickie wherein the teenage narrator surveys the drunken, gleeful chaos of a girls’ night out and announces “I know we’ll always be friends”. It’s as hopeful and sincere as all of those new year resolutions, but equally tinged with a certain sadness when the listener realises that soon those girls will go to college, get jobs or do whatever people do, and the links of that friendship will evaporate, sadly but naturally. It’s a trueism for most of us.

So it’s refreshing that, for once, I’m stood on the precipice of a genuine change. At the start of February, I’ll be kissing goodbye to the deskjob and finally flinging myself at the mercy of the media industry. Well, sort of. I’m certainly ditching business support in an attempt to get paid writing work (rather than the sporadic, unpaid freelancing I’ve done for the past seven years), but before I do that, I’m going back to college.

You see, I never really thought about practical ways to go about becoming a professional music writer. Neither of the fanzines I edited saw the light of day. The student paper didn’t return my emails, so I never pushed them. Even when I started writing under a crap pseudonym for a local reviews site (long since decamped to London), I still didn’t go so far as to send my writing to bigger publications. Forever fearing rejection, I didn’t allow myself to make the effort to take those steps, because it would be easier to daydream than be told I wasn’t good enough. The problem with this sort of fear is that it breeds further laziness, and so by the end of 2009 I woke up to find myself typing my days away under a glass ceiling in a career I didn’t want in the first place. I was overweight, apathetic and miserable. Things had to change.

As 2010 began, I resolved to make those changes. I began using my gym membership more than at any time since being unemployed in 2006. I started to write songs for the first time in years. When the opportunity to join a new band presented itself, I took it, and before long my other band was also playing more shows. Suddenly I was playing music frequently for the first time in years. It was great, but I knew I had to make more of a plan for a life outside of what is essentially a hobby (a furiously passionate one, but a hobby nonetheless).

It was time to get serious about writing.

After some investigation, I formed a plan. It required the humiliating but necessary act of moving back in with my parents to finance it, but it was a plan nonetheless. And so here I am on the verge of it coming into practice. From February, I’ll be commencing my NCTJ diploma at my local community college. You might observe it’s a step I should have taken years ago, and perhaps you’re right. But as far as I’m concerned it’s a step I’m happy to be taking at all. Now I’ve seen what happens when I drift, I want to take control of things.

So 2011 is where things change. When people ask ‘what do you do for a living?’ I’ll have to start replying ‘I’m a writer,’ rather than explaining how I’m making ends meet and then dismissing my ambition with a ‘…but I’m also…’. It’s a big change, but it’s refreshing, and I’m genuinely excited about it. Come the summer, I’ll be searching for an actual job in this business. I’m on my way to being a professional writer.

Imagine.

After the self-indulgent and pointless way I’ve rambled on here, I’ll certainly have to become more focussed.

Anyway.

People in my chosen career tend to sign off the previous year by listing their favourite bands or releases, or prediciting the best artists of the next twelve months. This is an area of pop hackism that I’m looking forward to least, to be honest – the Nick Hornby-esque compiling of lists for lists’ sake. So for now I’m going to enjoy the blogosphere’s freedom to ignore that ominous future task, and instead just tell you about my favourite record of my best year in a long time.

Majesty Shredding is Superchunk‘s first full-length since the appropriately-titled Here’s To Shutting Up in 2001. Not that they’ve been resting on their laurels since then – singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan has been busy with his Robert Pollard collaboration Go Back Snowball, and the ongoing Portastatic project, drummer Jon Wurster has begun a career in radio comedy, and bassist Laura Ballance has run indie powerhouse Merge Records alongside Mac for 20 years. You might be forgiven for expecting this ‘comeback’ to be a cheap cash-in on the success of their peers Dinosaur Jr and Pavement‘s recent reunions. But it isn’t.

For one thing, Superchunk never actually split up. They just took some time out. As Pitchfork rightly pointed out, Majesty Shredding “sounds like McCaughan had another 11 Superchunk-sounding songs sitting around, and the band finally found time to record them.” And they’re all stormers. This may not have the same impact as 1991’s No Pocky For Kitty, or introduce unexpected dynamic changes like Foolish or Come Pick Me Up, but it does contain eleven great songs that… well, that just don’t let up. There’s the hook-tastic Digging For Something, laced with ‘woah-oh-oh’s and nagging guitars. Rosemarie reveals the reverse effect of the bands effect on 90s emo by sounding like the best song late-period Get Up Kids never wrote. Everything At Once resembles Slowdive being given a crash course in fizzy pop-punk and utterly joyous choruses.

Then there’s Learned To Surf. Technically, this isn’t a new song – it first surfaced on 2009’s Leaves In The Gutter EP. But I’m going to argue for its inclusion here by virtue of a) being on this album and b) being utterly superb on every level. It may not just be my favourite song of this year; I can’t think of many records I’ve liked this much in the last decade.

The same goes for the whole album though. It’s utterly wonderful.

No doubt I’ll keep you abreast of my progress with the course.

“I can’t hold my breath any more – I stopped sinking and learned to surf”

HNY, everyone

w x

Smudge: The Majesty Of Tom Morgan

May 25, 2010

“It’s not the tracks, it’s where they’re leading” – Tenderfoot by Tom Morgan

We all know life’s a bitch, and it can be enough of a drag struggling through from day to day. Music’s much the same. How much time do you spend subjected to other people’s tastes and wondering to yourself, ‘when will this shite end?’ But every now and again, both life and music throw you a bone. It might not be much, but that bone can still taste like manna from the gods.

WHTB is usually skeptical of events like Liverpool’s Sound City festival – essentially a week of hip-but-not-necessarily-exciting bands coming here who might not otherwise – but this year it came with a delightful bonus in the form of Australian indie-pop-punkers Smudge.

Now, you may not have heard of Smudge, and there’s no reason to feel like you should have done either. They never attained an especially significant degree of fame, and if they were influential at all, it was barely outside of their own back yard. Their only modicum of celebrity comes from singer Tom Morgan‘s songwriting partner and de facto foil. Anyone familiar with the works of Evan Dando?

Back in 1991, the Lemonheads were touring their fourth album Lovey (also their major label debut, and their first lp not to feature founder member/frontman Ben Deily) in Australia. Dando and Morgan were introduced to each other by Nic Dalton, founder of Sydney’s Half A Cow Records, and the pair hit it off immediately. The next time they met, several months later, they began tossing musical and lyrical phrases back at each other. Eventually they wrote a song called It’s A Shame About Ray.

Dando and Morgan would also collaborate on Bit Part for the Lemonheads’ fifth album, before going on to co-write at least half of its follow-up (the under-appreciated Come On Feel The Lemonheads). Morgan speaks fondly of the process, describing it thus in 2005:

“It was never like a business arrangement, it was a product of hanging out together. We always have one guitar, we never have two guitars because people get caught up in your own little thing. So, you have to have one guitar and you hand it back and forth… Otherwise you’re playing over the top of each other, there’s no focus”

It’s strange to imagine one of the 90s’ most famously loopy rock stars forming such a disciplined partnership, especially with someone on the other side of the world, but even now the pair continue to write together or for each other (albeit sporadically).

So that’s why you might have heard Tom Morgan’s work before. He was never invited to join the Lemonheads, however, because Dando knew that Smudge was already a going concern. Indeed, by the time Come On Feel… was released, Smudge had released a series of EPs and were preparing to release their first long-player Manilow on Half A Cow.

This, and the three albums that followed, demonstrate that Morgan was more than just a source of material for his famous friend. The sound may be scruffier and the delivery scrappier, but Smudge’s heart is firmly on its sleeve – passion and sheer glee plainly audible for all to hear, and perfectly encapsulated within two-and-a-half-minute pop songs. It’s easy to see why they were much beloved of the slacker congnoscenti, since their songs fizz with the same guitar buzz that powered the likes of Superchunk, Eric’s Trip or Guided By Voices. For those bands, the sound is part of the selling tool – the lo-fi hiss that defined a generation of American indie rockers. But in the hands of this Australian trio, it merely helps to propel songs that are by turns funny, upbeat and (occasionally) resigned to their fate. There’s a warmth and… well, yeh, a humanity in their snappy, crackled pop that you rarely find in any band. Some days it’s positively reassuring to know there are folks out there who ever made records like these.

So it was great to see them turn up in Liverpool, at a free Saturday afternoon show with a BBQ. WHTB geeked out sufficiently to earn some personal dedications (and a worrying sense of fanboydom… but hey, that’s what this blog’s all about, so best quit worrying about it, eh?).

Smudge on an uncharacteristically sunny day in Liverpool

They were utterly wonderful, from the opening breeze of Ingrown to their tribute to one of “Australia’s greatest bands” (their take on You Am I’s Berlin Chair). Tom is still chirpy and sweet, Adam’s melodic basslines still brighten up even the perkiest of pop songs, and Alison is still simultaneously the sweetest of presences and a joy to watch behind the kit. In short, Smudge are still great.

They were going to play Divan, but I asked for Don't Want To Be Grant McLennan. GAH!

Fire Records has recently reissued two Smudge albums, including the classic Manilow. You’re well advised to start there. Then investigate Tom’s work with Nic Dalton in Sneeze, as well as the various other great bands the pair have been involved with over the years.

Peace out. x